April 3, 2018
Toronto Star
Dan Ralph

BrainHQ, which offers brain-training exercises, has the potential to improve cognitive function and quality of life, researchers say.

When Bob Bronk began experiencing brief memory lapses six years ago, he wondered if they were due to getting older or the concussions he suffered playing football.

The former Toronto Argonauts running back figures he was “knocked out cold three or four times” in games and there were other occasions “when I had a concussion.” The 58-year-old Winnipeg native, a member of the Argos’ 1983 Grey Cup-winning team, recollects first being concussed at age 15.

“It was like the cartoon when you see stars flying around,” said Bronk, the CEO of the Ontario Construction Secretariat. “I was fortunate, though, when I had concussions or was knocked out I didn’t have any headaches or dizziness. I don’t even remember having to take an aspirin.

“I always prided myself on being mentally sharp but I remember having to fix something in the bathroom and going to the basement to get a tool and after getting there wondering, ‘What tool did I come here for?’ Thankfully there’s no evidence of any post-concussion symptoms whatsoever … but I’m still working full-time and would like to for a long time. You want to stay mentally sharp just for the sake of being mentally sharp.”

So Bronk joined the Canadian Sports Concussion Project at Toronto Western Hospital with other former CFL players. That’s when Bronk used BrainHQ, an online brain exercise and assessment program, for 30 minutes four times weekly over three years.

“Last year when they did the analysis my scores actually improved, which is unusual,” said Bronk, who recently resumed using the program. “But I totally attribute that to doing BrainHQ.

“It’s like your body, you’ve got to do cardio and strength training but you’ve also got to exercise your brain. I know it’s made a big difference with my memory, reaction time and ability to focus.”

Last week, the CFL Alumni Association announced a partnership with BrainHQ. Executive director Leo Ezerins said the involvement of former CFL players in The Canadian Sports Concussion Project, founded by neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator, made the initiative a logical next step.

“We wanted to look at what we could do for alumni and current players, beyond the scope of sport, and the general community as well,” said Ezerins, a former linebacker with Hamilton and Winnipeg. “I remember going into a grocery store a couple of years ago and a woman coming out asking, ‘Where did I park my car?’

“We’ve all been there and unfortunately with all the discussion about concussions and head injuries … we somehow feel we’re different but we’re all in the same boat. There’s plenty that can be done to help day-to-day living.”

CFL alumni aren’t the only players using BrainHQ as NFL quarterback Tom Brady acknowledged just before the 2017 Super Bowl he also utilizes the program. So does fellow quarterback Brian Hoyer — Brady’s backup in New England — and New Orleans tight end Ben Watson.

BrainHQ also has a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense covering active, reserve, and retired Marines, U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy personnel. A company official said BrainHQ works with baseball, NHL, NBA and FIFA players but wouldn’t divulge specific users.

“Whenever a player talks about BrainHQ, we are appreciative,” the official said. “But we do not solicit public endorsements from users.”

Ezerins, 61, of Winnipeg, uses BrainHQ and says it benefits him.

“It got me on track and on course,” he said. “It’s very very helpful.”

Dr. Henry Mahncke, a research neuroscientist who is the CEO of parent company Posit Science Corp., said brain exercise can deliver positive results, regardless of one’s age.

“What we’ve built is a set of brain-training exercises designed specifically to make the brain faster and more accurate,” he said. “What’s different is the older approach to cognitive training was like practising for a test … when you met someone you’d make a little rhyme in your head and you’d remember that name.

“Those techniques don’t really work well if your brain isn’t working that well because you have to remember to do them. So they came at this from a very different angle, which is to say, ‘Can we make the basic machinery of the brain faster and more accurate?’ It turns out if you do that you can improve cognitive function.”

Mahncke said brain research has changed dramatically since the 1980s, when he said the brain was likened to a computer chip that was pretty much formed by age 13. If it was damaged, the common belief was little could be done.

“We no longer think of the brain as fixed and recognize it’s what we call plastic,” he said. “It’s constantly reorganizing and changing itself structurally, functionally and chemically in response to what we ask it to do.

“If we ask the brain to do the right thing we can probably improve aspects of cognitive function and world function by training the brain the right ways. That basic science … is what led us to build these brain exercises and BrainHQ and see them put to use in this way.”

BrainHQ has 29 online exercises organized into six categories: attention; brain speed; memory; people skills; navigation; and intelligence. Participants can have programs designed for them or make their own.

Mahncke said there are multiple reasons why brain function can be impacted, ranging from normal wear and tear (aging), to concussions, chemotherapy or such afflictions as multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. But he believes BrainHQ’s program can benefit those situations.

“What we think we’re seeing in players like Bob and other folks we’ve worked with is regardless of how their brain has ended up where it is, by exercising it, by making it faster and more accurate we can help that person have a better performing brain and a better quality of life,” Mahncke said.

However, Mahncke added brain exercises aren’t a cure-all.

“The same way a person can improve their physical performance and quality of life by exercising their body … what the science is showing us is the brain works exactly the same way,” he said. “With the right kind of brain exercise a person absolutely can improve where they are, their cognitive function and quality of life.

“I don’t think that’s appropriate to call it a cure. But would I say it’s appropriate to say that’s a good idea? Absolutely.”